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News, October 2015
Turkey warns US and Russia Against Backing Kurdish Militia,
Syrian Army and Russian Air Strikes Drive Back Opposition Forces
October 13, 2015
Turkey warns U.S., Russia against backing Kurdish militia in Syria
Reuters, Tue Oct 13, 2015 7:47am EDT
ANKARA | By Orhan Coskun
A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry October 9, 2015, shows a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber dropping a bomb in the air over Syria. Reuters/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via Reuters
ANKARA Turkey has warned the United States and Russia it will not tolerate Kurdish territorial gains by Kurdish militia close to its frontiers in north-western Syria, two senior officials said.
"This is clear cut for us and there is no joking about it," one official said of the possibility of Syrian Kurdish militia crossing the Euphrates to extend control along Turkish borders from Iraq's Kurdistan region towards the Mediterranean coast.
Turkey fears advances by Kurdish YPG militia, backed by its PYD political wing, on the Syrian side of its 900 km (560-mile) border will fuel separatist ambitions among Kurds in its own southeastern territories. But Washington has supported YPG fighters as an effective force in combating Islamic State.
"The PYD has been getting closer with both the United States and Russia of late. We view the PYD as a terrorist group and we want all countries to consider the consequences of their cooperation," one of the Turkish officials said.
Turkey suspects Russia, which launched air strikes in Syria two weeks ago, has also been lending support to the YPG and PYD.
"With support from Russia, the PYD is trying to capture land between Jarablus and Azaz, going west of the Euphrates. We will never accept this," the official said.
He said Turkey had raised its concerns at high level meetings with the U.S., European Union and Russia.
The officials did not say what action, if any, Turkey might take if YPG forces crossed the Euphrates. Ankara has carried out air strikes against Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels based in the mountains of northern Iraq; but attacks on Kurds in Syria would be far riskier, bringing Ankara into possible conflict both with U.S. and Russian air forces.
The YPG said on Monday it had joined forces with Arab rebels and that their new alliance has been promised fresh weapon supplies by the United States for an assault on Islamic State forces in what is effectively their capital, Raqqa.
Turkey has accused the Kurdish militia of pursuing "demographic change" in northern Syria by forcibly displacing Turkmen and Arab communities. Ankara fears ultimately the creation of an independent Kurdish state occupying contiguous territories currently belonging to Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Amnesty International on Tuesday accused the YPG, which has seized swathes of northern Syria from Islamic State this year, of committing war crimes by driving out thousands of non-Kurdish civilians and destroying their homes.
The Kurds, who have emerged as the U.S.-led coalition's most capable partner in Syria against Islamic State on the ground, deny such accusations. They say those who left areas they seized did so to escape fighting and are welcome to return.
Over 40,000 people have been killed in a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey since 1984. The collapse of a ceasefire in July has brought a sharp increase in conflict between security forces and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
Syrian army, Russian jets drive back rebels in fiercest clashes for days: monitor
Reuters Mon Oct 12, 2015 11:37am EDT
Syrian army and allied forces supported by Russian warplanes made further advances as they pressed an offensive against insurgents on Monday, in the fiercest clashes for nearly a week, a monitor said.
Russian jets carried out at least 30 air strikes on the town of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province in western Syria, and hundreds of shells hit the area as the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters seized part of it, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have in the past few days recaptured territory close to the government's coastal heartland in the west thanks to Russia's intervention, reversing rebel advances made earlier this year.
Moscow says its air campaign targets Islamic State, but most of the strikes have hit rival insurgent groups fighting against Assad, some of which are supported by the United States.
Pro-government forces including the Lebanese group Hezbollah on Monday captured the southern part of Kafr Nabuda, the Observatory's Rami Abdulrahman said.
The fighting, shelling and air strikes killed and wounded dozens of insurgents, he said.
"These are the most violent battles in the northern countryside (of Hama) since the start of joint operations several days ago" between the Russian air force and Syrian ground forces, he said.
Lebanese-based television station al-Mayadeen also reported the takeover of the southern part of Kafr Nabuda.
Kafr Nabuda's capture would bring government forces closer to insurgent-held positions along the main highway that links Syria's main cities. "The town is very important and strategic," Abdulrahman said.
The Syrian army and Hezbollah on Sunday took control of Tal Skik on the other side of the highway in southern Idlib province. Many of Russia's air strikes have hit the surrounding area, which also lies east of Assad's stronghold Latakia.
Russia began its air campaign on September 30, alarming a U.S.-led coalition which is carrying out its own air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Dominic Evans)
U.S. airdrops ammunition to Syria rebels
Reuters Mon Oct 12, 2015 11:06pm EDT
By John Davison and Phil Stewart
U.S. forces airdropped small arms ammunition and other supplies to Syrian Arab rebels, barely two weeks after Russia raised the stakes in the long-running civil war by intervening on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.
One military official said the drop, by Air Force C-17 cargo planes in northern Syria on Sunday, was part of a revamped U.S. strategy announced last week to help rebels in Syria battling Islamic State militants.
Last week, Washington shelved a program to train and equip "moderate" rebels opposed to Assad who would join the fight against Islamic State.
The only group on the ground to have success against Islamic State while cooperating with the U.S.-led coalition is a Kurdish militia, the YPG, which has carved out an autonomous zone in northern Syria and advanced deep into Islamic State's stronghold Raqqa province.
On Monday, the YPG announced a new alliance with small groups of Arab fighters, which could help deflect criticism that it fights only on behalf of Kurds. Washington has indicated it could direct funding and weapons to Arab commanders on the ground who cooperate with the YPG.
Amnesty International, in a new report, accused the YPG of committing war crimes by driving out thousands of non-Kurdish civilians and demolishing their homes in Kurdish-controlled areas. A YPG spokesman called it "a false allegation."
The U.S. military confirmed dropping supplies to opposition fighters vetted by the United States but would say no more about the groups that received the supplies or the type of equipment in the airdrop.
Syrian Arab rebels said they had been told by Washington that new weapons were on their way to help them launch a joint offensive with their Kurdish allies on the city of Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital.
The Russian intervention in the four-year Syrian war has caught U.S. President Barack Obama's administration off guard. Washington has been trying to defeat Islamic State while still calling for Assad's downfall.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was rebuffed in his bid to gain support for his country's bombing campaign, with Saudi sources saying they had warned the Kremlin leader of dangerous consequences and Europe issuing its strongest criticism yet.
The head of Syria's Nusra Front, an offshoot of al Qaeda, took aim on Monday at the Russian intervention, urging insurgents to escalate attacks on the strongholds of Assad's minority Alawite sect in retaliation for what he called Russia's indiscriminate killing of Muslim Sunnis.
Describing Russia's action as a new Christian crusade from the east that was doomed to fail, the audio message from Abu Mohamad al-Golani posted on YouTube said: "The war in Cham (Syria) will make the Russians forget the horrors of what they faced in Afghanistan."
"The new Russian invasion is the last dart in the weaponry of the enemies of Muslims and the enemies of Syria," said Golani, whose extremist Muslim Sunni fundamentalist group is one of the most powerful forces fighting Assad's government.
Putin met Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of a Formula One race in a Russian resort on Sunday.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said those talks, along with discussions with the United States, had yielded progress on the conflict, although Moscow, Washington and Riyadh did not agree in full "as yet".
A Saudi source said the defense minister, a son of the Saudi king, had told Putin that Russia's intervention would escalate the war and inspire militants from around the world to go there to fight.
Riyadh would go on supporting Assad's opponents and demand that he leave power, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
European foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, issued a statement calling on Moscow to halt its bombing of Assad's moderate enemies immediately.
They were unable to agree on whether Assad should have any role in ending the crisis, but they did decide to extend sanctions by essentially freezing the assets of the spouses of senior Syrian figures.
The war has taken 250,000 lives and caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and Europe.
Moscow says it targets only banned terrorist groups in Syria, primarily Islamic State. In its briefings, it describes all of the targets it strikes as belonging to Islamic State.
But most strikes have taken place in areas held by other opposition groups, including many that are supported by Arab states, Turkey and the West in a war that has also assumed a sectarian dimension with Shi'ite Iran at odds with Saudi Arabia's Sunni rulers.
RUSSIAN AIR SUPPORT
Syrian government forces and their allies from the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, backed by Iranian military officers, have launched a massive ground offensive in coordination with the Russian air support.
They fought their fiercest clashes on Monday since the assault began, advancing in strategically important territory near the north-south highway linking Syria's main cities.
Russian warplanes carried out at least 30 air strikes on the town of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province in western Syria, and hundreds of shells hit the area.
The Syrian army announced the capture of Kafr Nabuda and four other villages in Hama province. It also said the army had seized Jub al-Ahmar, a highland area in Latakia province that will put more rebel positions in the nearby Ghab Plain within range of the army's artillery.
The U.N. diplomat trying to convene talks to end the war said he would hold talks in Russia on Tuesday and then in Washington.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in Dubai, Tom Perry and John Davison in Beirut, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Robin Emmott in Luxembourg; Writing by Peter Graff, Giles Elgood and David Alexander, Editing by Peter Millership, Howard Goller and Ken Wills)
How Iranian general plotted out Syrian assault in Moscow
Reuters Tue Oct 6, 2015 1:28pm EDT
By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry
At a meeting in Moscow in July, a top Iranian general unfurled a map of Syria to explain to his Russian hosts how a series of defeats for President Bashar al-Assad could be turned into victory - with Russia's help.
Major General Qassem Soleimani's visit to Moscow was the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that has reshaped the Syrian war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.
As Russian warplanes bomb rebels from above, the arrival of Iranian special forces for ground operations underscores several months of planning between Assad's two most important allies, driven by panic at rapid insurgent gains.
Soleimani is the commander of the Quds Force, the elite extra-territorial special forces arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and reports directly to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Senior regional sources say he has already been overseeing ground operations against insurgents in Syria and is now at the heart of planning for the new Russian- and Iranian-backed offensive.
That expands his regional role as the battlefield commander who has also steered the fight in neighboring Iraq by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia against Islamic State.
His Moscow meeting outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria, where rebel advances toward the coast were posing a danger to the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartous.
"Soleimani put the map of Syria on the table. The Russians were very alarmed, and felt matters were in steep decline and that there were real dangers to the regime. The Iranians assured them there is still the possibility to reclaim the initiative," a senior regional official said. "At that time, Soleimani played a role in assuring them that we haven't lost all the cards."
Three senior officials in the region say Soleimani's July trip was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian contacts that produced political agreement on the need to pump in new support for Assad as his losses accelerated.
Their accounts suggest planning for the intervention began to germinate several months earlier. It means Tehran and Moscow had been discussing ways to prop up Assad by force even as Western officials were describing what they believed was new flexibility in Moscow's stance on his future.
Before the latest moves, Iran had aided Assad militarily by mobilizing Shi'ite militias to fight alongside the Syrian army, and dispatching Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps officers as advisors. A number of them have been killed.
Russia, an ally of Damascus since the Cold War, had supplied weapons to the Syrian army and shielded Damascus diplomatically from Western attempts to sanction Assad at the United Nations.
Their support did not prevent rebels - some of them backed by Assad's regional foes - from reducing Assad's control of Syria to around one fifth of its territory in a four-year-long war estimated to have killed 250,000 people.
The decision for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria was taken at a meeting between Russia's foreign minister and Khamenei a few months ago, said a senior official of a country in the region, involved in security matters.
"Soleimani, assigned by Khamenei to run the Iranian side of the operation, traveled to Moscow to discuss details. And he also traveled to Syria several times since then," the official said.
The Russian government says its Syria deployment came as the result of a formal request from Assad, who himself laid out the problems facing the Syrian military in stark terms in July, saying it faced a manpower problem.
Khamenei also sent a senior envoy to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin, another senior regional official said. "Putin told him 'Okay we will intervene. Send Qassem Soleimani'. He went to explain the map of the theater."
RESIDENT IN DAMASCUS
Russian warplanes, deployed at an airfield in Latakia, began mounting air strikes against rebels in Syria last week.
Moscow says it is targeting Islamic State, but many of Russia's air strikes have hit other insurgents, including groups backed by Assad's foreign enemies, notably in the northwest where rebels seized strategically important towns including Jisr al-Shughour earlier this year.
In the biggest deployment of Iranian forces yet, sources told Reuters last week that hundreds of troops have arrived since late September to take part in a major ground offensive planned in the west and northwest.
Around 3,000 fighters from the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah have also mobilized for the battle, along with Syrian army troops, said one of the senior regional sources.
The military intervention in Syria is set out in an agreement between Moscow and Tehran that says Russian air strikes will support ground operations by Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, said one of the senior regional sources.
The agreement also included the provision of more sophisticated Russian weapons to the Syrian army, and the establishment of joint operations rooms that would bring those allies together, along with the government of Iraq, which is allied both to Iran and the United States.
One of the operations rooms is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.
"Soleimani is almost resident in Damascus, or let's say he goes there a lot and you can find him between meetings with President Assad and visits to the theater of operations like any other soldier," said one of the senior regional officials.
Syria's foreign minister said on Monday that the Russian air strikes had been planned for months.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)
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